This year, a great year for new music and an absolutely awful year for just about everything else, my Album of the Year pick came down to a final three artists: Radiohead. Leonard Cohen. Bon Iver.
(You can read more about what informed that choice here.)
The muse of Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool" is Rachel Owen, Thom Yorke's partner -- and later wife -- of 23 years, a relationship that produced two children, and ended last year. The record is a post-postmortem on their love affair, at times angry or foreboding, but mostly resigned, restrained, and beautiful. On Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, amid 365 days of death and destruction, Rachel Owen died of cancer. She was 48.
The day before the worst news of 2016 happened (hint: a Tuesday night in November), Leonard Cohen died. He left us with a final work worthy of a canon of music that has and will stand the test of time. His voice on "You Want It Darker" is deeper and, yes, darker than ever; his words as poetic and meaningful.
There is loss, too, in Bon Iver's "22, A Million" -- though it's buried a bit in numerology and vocal effects and his sometimes inscrutable lyrics. But there's a reason, for me, Justin Vernon's first missive in five years rises above the pack to win my 2016 Album of Year: hope.
It seems, at the end of such a brutal year, that we don't have much of it right now. I wrote at length about how the acceptance in Radiohead's "True Love Waits" made it finally ready to be put to tape, and to close "A Moon Shaped Pool." No longer a live take -- a desperate, pathetic plea to a leaving lover, sang over an acoustic guitar strummed so hard it could shred fingers -- it's now a recording of quiet acceptance, with no catharsis, no dramatic flourish at the end. It's just a goodbye, long after all the goodbyes have been said.
A breaking heart, though, is different than a broken heart. It's far more painful in the moment, yes, but then the feeling hasn't turned empty yet. The hole is forming, but it's more a fresh, gaping wound than a crater, covered in several layers of thick gray moon dust, too deep to ascend.
So when Thom Yorke sings, "Please, don't leave. Don't leave," on the album version of "True Love Waits," he's talking to a ghost. It's harrowing and beautiful in its own right.
But when Justin Vernon, on "715 Creeks", sings, "Turn around, you're my A-team. Turn around now, you're my A-team. Goddamn turn around now, you're my A-team," his voice digitally manipulated so it forms tendrils around itself, it's heart wrenching. The moment is unfurling in real time. Will his A-team turn around? It might. And it might not.
It's the last words of the song, so we never know. The mystery is unsolved. The yearning continues.
"It might be over soon," Bon Iver's record warns you on its opening track. But maybe it won't be.
There is so much wisdom on the Radiohead record -- one of the best of the band's career, a record which might have won easily another year, and was the front-runner most of this one -- and on Leonard Cohen's, a spiritual incarnation of so much secular import, but they hit the intellect for me more now than they do the heart. Right now, I need the heart. I need room to believe. It's why "Glass Eyes" is probably the best Radiohead song this year -- maybe there's hope in the woods, if you only get off the train from the city and walk.
Bon Iver's record is full of heart. It takes the cabin in the woods intimacy of "For Emma, Forever Ago" and mixes in the richness of production that helped define "Bon Iver" to find a home in the center. It's the band's finest record yet; far from perfect, meandering in some places, but peppered with moments that grab on tight. I didn't know I needed it, or even wanted it, until I heard it. It's warm and inviting, even amid the mystery of the coded song titles and the artwork, littered with symbols, that could very well turn some away -- and kept me at a distance at first, too. It has a sense of humor, too, at one point rhyming "quandary" with "waundry" in an off-hand manner in the midst of a much deeper sentiment.
But the two lyrics on "22, A Million," I find most compelling come on the final track, "00000 Million":
"I worried bout rain and I worried bout lightning/But I watched them off, to the light of the morning"
Bon Iver's darkness yields to the dawn; it's not Radiohead's darkness, which is at worst the sun covered over by a spaceship in your darkest hour, at best the glassy-eyed light of a dreary, cloudy day, or Leonard Cohen's darkness, the moment the flame is extinguished.
And then there are the final words of the song, and indeed the final words of the record:
"Well it harms it harms me it harms, I'll let it in"
The takeaway? Hope that comes out of hurt takes work. It's time to feel it, let it in, and get going.
1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji
2015: The Tallest Man On Earth -- Dark Bird is Home